We love watching home improvement shows, because within one magical hour a "list it" property easily becomes one you would say "love it" to—or even buy or rent for a vacation. But as anyone who's even undertaken a "small" DIY project can attest, the reality is hardly ever as seamless As Seen on TV.
So, after she was recently featured flipping a seaside condo in an episode of Beachfront Bargain Hunt: Renovation, I called up my high school friend Lori Valenti Webb to find out what it was really like renovating a house start to finish with HGTV.
Lori and her husband, Chris Webb, met and fell in love while working in property development in Raleigh. After flipping a few rental properties together they decided last year to purchase a beachfront condo—now known as Spiaggia at the Sea—on Pawleys Island in South Carolina, three and a half hours away from where they live and work and about 20 minutes south of Myrtle Beach.
Lori had previous reality TV experience from participating in season five of Big Brother, and she also had friends who had worked with HGTV on Love It or List It, so she decided to reach out to the network to find out if they'd be interested in working together. Here's what happened when they accepted, and helped the Webbs to flip a dated 1,700-square-foot high-rise condo that hadn't been touched since 1981 into a "modern, rustic, farmhouse style beach house" vacation rental with ocean views—and all in under six weeks. [This interview is edited for length and clarity.]
Apartment Therapy: Did you already own the condo when you started filming?
Lori Valenti Webb: Yes. We had vacationed on Pawleys Island a couple of times and knew that we wanted something there. It's a quiet beach town, close to Myrtle Beach if you want that whole hoopla, but with a more relaxing vibe. There were a lot of resort-style properties, and we had stayed at that one where we ended up buying a few times before. The unit had been sitting on the market for a while, and you can see why when you see the show, it's full-on eighties finest in there. But we walked in and it was all the cosmetic, easy-to-fix kind of stuff that we get excited about. We put in an offer, and because it had been sitting on the market for a long time it was undervalued for what other units in that place were going for. We had talked on the show a little bit about lining something up, and they were looking for renovations on the southeast coat, so as soon as our offer was accepted they were ready to start pulling us in and filming.
AT: Why did you decide to reach out to HGTV about doing the show together?
LVW: I had a couple of friends who had done Love It or List It and HGTV was really good to them. The filming process can speed up a lot of things because you have to get certain things done, like setting up the time with the production company. And you can often get a lot of breaks with local vendors that want to get featured on the show, so I knew that there was a chance to get substantial cost savings on the renovations if we worked with them.
I reached out, and they were like, "Yes, if you know the location that a particular show is looking to film in, like a beach area, but only certain beach areas." This area worked out for them, and they were phenomenal from minute one. We did some interviews, and we did some face-time stuff, they checked to see how "personable" and interesting we would be on-screen, and they liked us so it was all really quick after the initial talks, we just went in and started filming. I think we started talking to them in September 2017 and then by November 2017 we had started our first shoot.
AT: What was that like, filming a renovation show on the Atlantic in the winter?
LVW: You wouldn't think that it would be that cold that far south in November, but it was freezing the entire time. We shot all through November, December, and the very beginning of January. Every single day that we shot was colder than the one before. We were on the beach one day, filming the kayaking scene, and it was 27 degrees. It looks awesome on film, but I ended up getting pneumonia after that for three weeks. I was sick as a dog. But there we were out there on the beach trying to look as warm as possible, which is kind of funny to watch now.
AT: I saw the walk-through at the beginning of the show, and I actually can't tell if I loved that vintage bird wallpaper in the kitchen or hated it, whether or not I was sad to see that it went away. Had you started any of the renovation, or had you done a walk-through with a general contractor, before filming or did all of that unfold in real-time as we see it on camera?
LVW: That was all unfolding in real-time. We had done a walk-through, obviously, because, when we were looking at the place with the realtor and then later doing the inspections, but a lot of what you see on camera is for the first time because our timing was limited. The beach house is a little farther away than I would have liked. We did that drive back and forth many times, and at first it seemed perfect, it was all brand new, but then after going back and forth three and a half hours each way, four hours with traffic, it got old fast. When we started renovations, we were making real-time decisions with Brewster, our general contractor (GC), and you can only put so much on the show, but there was a lot we were talking through with the cameras rolling.
AT: What was it like working with a GC you had only just met?
LVW: Brewster had a lot of experience in that market and knew what people liked. He had some good creative ideas, his pricing was good, all of that stuff lined up, and we felt comfortable with him. Brewster is just really funny and easygoing and not timid at all with the cameras. He couldn't have been more perfect for it—he's such a big goofball.
The interesting thing about that area is that there are people willing to do renovations, but they're not current renovations. They're putting in granite, they're putting in nice new updated cabinets and stuff, but they all look very much the same. So our renovation was a little bit different and kind of unique to that market. No other place nearby has that modern farmhouse style—especially in a beach house.
AT: Had you renovated properties before?
LVW: When I was living in Los Angeles for three years, I got the real estate bug big time. I took the little bit of money that I made from commercial work and bought a place in Austin, Texas and a place in Raleigh, and flipped them both. I fell in love with both areas but Raleigh was just a great place to live, really good cost of living, the people are super cool, the weather's good. I started working in property development here and met Chris, and in the 12 years that we've known each other, Chris and I have renovated about 15 places together.
We do our renovations with renting in mind, so we're always trying to find the flooring that's going to be the most durable while still looking really good. The color of paint that will get the most people in so we can get the best rent for the place. We actually just bought our first multi-family townhome subdivision. It's outside of Campbell University, student housing with 48 beds across 16 townhouses. So far, we've renovated about eight of the 16 townhouses as people are signing new leases with us for the school year—we're giving them the option of renovating before move-in. We've been BUSY. But we work together really well. I do a lot of the marketing, design, and leasing and Chris handles a lot of the actual renovations, doing the physical work, contracting vendors, doing maintenance, and operations. He's the brains behind all of that stuff.
AT: You did seem pretty comfortable doing the contractor walk-through and Demo Day—getting right in there like Chip & Joanna Gaines.
LVW: Chris is really good with that; me, not so much. I feel like I watched myself on the show and wanted to cringe. I mean, it's kind of painful. I learned a ton during that shoot because I had to be right up in there, on TV, doing some of the harder stuff. Before, I would help with a tile backsplash and some minor types of renovation projects, but this was demolition, putting cabinets together. So, I got my hands dirty, too, but Chris is just one of those people who's a natural with it and he knows what to do and how to do it, he's self-taught and he's really good.
AT: What was the renovation process like, and how was it different, on camera and off? Was there anything that got glossed over, or any shortcuts that we didn't see in the finished episode?
LVW: We renovated the whole place—1,700 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, basically a cosmetic gut job—to get it all done in six weeks of filming while we were living three and a half hours away. That was pretty wild. But in order to get sealed up and delivered on time and everything, that's what we had to do. The days were really long, and we did a lot of scenes multiple times. After a certain amount of time redoing some scenes, you lose a little it of the luster and energy, but the crew is great with their editing and they still manage to really capture it.
When I watched the show, I thought it looked very accurate to us. They do a lot of good things with the editing, too, by removing all the awkward silences when we're just working along and looking stupid, or when we look like we don't even like each other, 'cause that happened a lot. Chris was thrilled: he's really quiet, and he was very happy with how much it looked like he was taking the lead and talking a lot, and I think they did a really good job capturing the real him. And I think they caught a few good, fun moments between us, too—there were a lot of those—there were also a lot of really awkward moments because you're doing stuff on TV.
AT: Tell me about one of those moments that you had to re-do for the camera.
LVW: In the master bathroom, I had given Brewster a lot of what I thought was good creative direction to do the renovation, and it turned out nothing like what I was looking for. Chris and I got there one Friday night, they had just finished renovating it the first time, the production company was going to be there first thing in the morning, and I looked at the bathroom and was cussing and totally beside myself. I called the production company and they were like, "Walk out of the bathroom right now, save it for the camera!" And I did, and we did it again in the morning for the cameras. It was toned down, I had already breathed through it and stuff, so it was definitely a variation. I wasn't cussing or anything like I was when I really saw it for the first time the night before, but, you know, it was true. You can see I'm not excited about it and that wasn't staged or anything like that, it was just one day later, I was seeing it again for the second time and was not thrilled about it. There are a lot of takes that you do to get certain camera angles, and some of that stuff might be watered down a little when you're seeing it on TV, but it's still accurate and true.
AT: Were there any moments you felt were forced for the narrative?
LVW: We were pretty natural with it and knew what they were looking for, and I think they got a lot of authentic footage of us, but there were occasional things, like when they'd say, "Oh, Lori, look at Chris and be like, 'That's amazing that you did this, honey, I'm so lucky to have you!" And I'd go, "I'm not saying that. There is no chance that's going to be believable on camera." So, sure, they tried to feed us lines but we just told them if we were willing to say them or not. Really, they were just trying to help—trying to seal a moment.
Already, the days were WAY longer than I thought. We'd get there at six in the morning the production company would be there and we'd go until well after dark, easily like 12 to 14 hours a day. We might have gotten things done way faster if we didn't have to do something over three to four times for the camera. But I also think because we had a certain timeline to get everything done for the show it kind of worked both ways for us. You know, it slowed us down on the actual days, but because of the timeline itself we were done with renovation in like six weeks, which is crazy fast. And they distilled that down into a single hour-long show. Not easy!
AT: I love the real-life renovation moments, like when you start scraping the popcorn ceiling and realize why you've always contracted that out in the past. Were there more moments like that we didn't see?
LVW: There are just some things are not worth doing, and that's one of those type of jobs. When you're painting, you get to see all the fruits of your labor immediately at the end of the job, it's amazing to see the transformation. But removing popcorn ceilings is just grueling, tiresome, awful work, and then at the end it's just like, "Alright, well now have smooth ceilings," which is what everybody typically has and you don't really think too much about it. Wallpaper removal we just won't do, it's too brutal and tedious and can be horrifying.
Chris really likes doing the floors and the cabinets, a lot of the woodworking, creating butcher block counters and barn doors. I don't mind doing painting, tiling, anything like that, but on the show my friend Misty and I put those cabinets together and that was way harder than I thought. But we saved about $4,000 by doing it ourselves. We never take on a massive project like truly gutting a bathroom—we did have the GCs already go in and figure out how to do that and get it on camera. There was so much tiling. Otherwise, for the most part, we were in there with those projects helping get it done. But that popcorn ceiling was the worst. Just awful.
AT: What else went into the renovation that viewers didn't see on camera?
LVW: They didn't show an entire room—the kids room we did, and I loved the way it turned out. Joss & Main was a sponsor on the show, but we had already designed the kid's rooms, where we ripped out one of the sinks that was in there and we made this really cool built-in desk and shiplapped the whole wall. That room was really cool, but that didn't get shown at all because there was a lot of furniture I had already bought that was not from Joss & Main. For the most part, they showed everything else.
AT: What was that like, working with a furniture company to decorate the renovation? Did you give them your designs and they matched it by sending pieces, or did they give you a budget?
LVW: I loved it. The Joss & Main furniture was amazing, the amount that I was able to get and the quality of it was unbelievable. I'm a huge fan of their stuff now. They gave me a budget and then, on a Friday night, I grabbed a bottle of wine and I sat down and I went to town picking furniture out. It was one of the most fun nights of my life. That was all me: Chris gave me full authority to pick out all of the furniture, and then HGTV did move things around a little bit. Not everything that I intended to go in a certain space went exactly where I had wanted it, but every time they changed it around it looked way better than it would have. It's crazy to see how much of their staging made such a difference. They also helped me out a bit with getting a bunch of live plants, because plants make such a huge difference, too, and I didn't have enough of little things like that. I learned quite a bit from the folks that do the staging with HGTV, actually.
AT: How was the experience different from being on other reality TV shows, like when you were on Big Brother Season 5?
LVW: It was a totally new experience for Chris but also for me, too, because on Big Brother you don't see any cameras anywhere. They're all hidden. So, even though it's all real, and they're catching everything, you never see the camera crews, you don't hear feedback from anybody, it's not anything like this experience.
With HGTV, they are right there watching you, doing multiple takes and giving you notes, helping you create the story. On the very first day, the very first scene, we were walking Chris into one of the new places they were showing us, and they hadn't let us see the room yet. So Chris walked in, ready to do his thing, and they were right there going, "Ready, go!", and he just walked right back out and was like, "Nope!" When they asked what was the matter, he said, "I was just not prepared to see all those cameras in my face." It's the weirdest feeling at first. It took us a good couple hours to even get used to that.
To watch The Webbs' entire episode of Beachfront Bargain Hunt: Renovation online, head to HGTV.com and look for "Paradise in Pawleys Island". For more before and after pics, follow Spiaggia at the Sea on Instagram. To rent the Pawleys Island condo for a future vacation, bookmark the rental listing on VRBO.